There are phrases I particularly get tickled by. One of them is, the games are coming in thick and fast. That phrase. Just hilarious. As though the number of games are like a blizzard. They are not like a blizzard at all. Though their plenteous nature is truly welcomed by someone who enjoys his Premier League football like my good self.
Before tuck into the feast of further football that awaits let us look at the games that have just been played this week and see how I did with the old prediction business. The system works in a simple way just like the league itself: three points for a win which is understood as a correct scoreline; one point for missing the scoreline but getting the outcome correct; then absolutely nothing for getting the whole shabungle wrong.
Bournemouth 2-2 Leicester City (0 points – actual score 1-0)
Everton 1-2 Arsenal (0 points – actual score 2-1)
Middlesbrough 1-2 Liverpool (1 point – actual score 0-3)
Sunderland 0-3 Chelsea (1 point – actual score 0-1)
West Ham 2-1 Burnley (1 point – actual score 1-0)
Crystal Palace 1-2 Man Utd (3 points)
Man City 3-1 Watford (1 point – actual score 2-0)
Stoke City 1-1 Southampton (1 point – actual score 0-0)
Tottenham 2-0 Hull City (1 point – actual score 3-0)
West Brom 2-0 Swansea (1 point – actual score 3-1)
Ten points in total. That’s very good and an improvement on recent weeks. But check this out in terms of percentage – 80%!!! 8 out of ten game outcomes were correctly predicted. That’s got to be an all time record on this prediction business. Yeah, it was great getting a correct scoreline in all that, but the sheer number of games with the correct outcomes was something I was particularly pleased with. That’s a good week’s work right there. The goal is to get more than 50% so to exceed that and get tantalisingly close to the full set was very good indeed, even if I do say so myself.
As the jolly season closes in and teams adjust to the rigours of the games coming in so quickly, will that affect predictions for the following set of fixtures? Will I be able to get equal or even better the performance of late? With that in mind, let’s consider this weekend’s fixtures.
Crystal Palace 0-2 Chelsea: Would it be harsh to sack Pardew this Christmas for failing to get enough points on the board over this run of games? I watch Palace play and see a side that does genuinely fight for each other and fight for the team. Yet for all their effort, they still come across as a side that is playing as less than the sum of its parts. How can a team like Palace be looking at Bournemouth and Watford above them? How does that work? Nevertheless that’s the position they are in. Noble though their defeat was to United in their last game, it was still a defeat and one that took place at home. Now they face Chelsea! Approaching this game as though they don’t have a chance won’t help them at all. It would be understandable for them to think that way though. Just consider their opponents. Ten wins in ten consecutive league games. Six points clear at the top of the table. They do not look like letting up. They can take on the defensive approach of Sunderland away from home without a key player and still emerge with the three points. Their system is working smoothly, they are not hassled by not scoring early. Players like Pedro and Fabregas who were initially considered out of favour can come into the team and make an impact. They are where they are because they deserve it and there’s little to suggest Palace can do much to change that. So would it be harsh to sack Pardew with that run of form?
Middlesbrough 2-1 Swansea: It’s a funny old game. Boro can’t be said to be having a bad season, as such. Yet here they are entering the game just three points ahead of their opponents who have been having a pretty torrid time in the league of late. Even if Swansea won, however, it wouldn’t put them above their opponents because of the degree of the goal difference and there is no way the Swans have it in them to be scoring a hatful of goals with little response. Having said that Boro don’t exactly have goals in them either. The onus is on Swansea though to get something from this match, preferably all three points. If things don’t go their way and they leave the Riverside with empty hands it will leave them with potentially a six point gap to safety. More disturbingly, it would leave them with another run of form that does not bode well for their chances of survival. There is something about the Welsh side, though, that gives the impression that they don’t have it in them to pull off an away win. They just don’t seem to be cohesive enough this season. Their team seems bereft of ideas when it matters most and that could prove to be their downfall. Karanka, however, cannot afford to take this game for granted. Their team has to be on it and they certainly have to raise their level of play from their last home outing where their defeat to Liverpool wasn’t too clever.
Stoke City 2-2 Leicester City: One minute they’re thrashing Manchester City the next minute they’re being humbled at Bournemouth. The Bournemouth result has been more reflective of the season the Premier League Champions. It makes it all the more of a fluke that they beat Man City the way they did. That result seems like a blip in a season of disappointing results and performances in the league. The questions remain: is this about players having a lacklustre reaction to winning the league? Is it the case that others have sussed out their style? Are the players complacent? Has the manager run out of ideas? Whatever the issue, Leicester city are now four points above the drop zone, they are not safe by any means. They need to get into the habit of winning games pretty quickly. Stoke City, in the meantime, are having some difficulty. They did well to get a draw against Southampton having played with ten men for a significant part of the game. That does not help them, however, having lost their previous match. They could do with a win just to get their season back on a more even keel. Yet their team have not been convincing as an attacking force. They need to get their stuff in order where scoring is concerned, but it’s difficult to see where that will happen. They could take advantage of their opponents being off form, but similarly they would have to raise their game to do that.
Sunderland 1-1 Watford: Hmmmmmm … Sunderland. Bottom of the table. Four points away from safety. Three losses in their last four games. That’s not good. Their saving grace is that they are around teams who are similarly scrapping with degrees of poor results. They face Watford and they are at home. They can win this game. In Defoe they have a striker who still knows where the goal is. David Moyes has Premier League pedigree, he knows how to get a team organised. He is not that bad a manager. Yet with stories coming out of the Stadium of Light that there won’t be that much in the way of funds to strengthen the squad in the January window, this is not a good time to be a Mackem. Watford, however, do not have a good record away from home. For whatever reason, their players tend to struggle. Sure they could see this game as a chance to get some points on the board and to win the game. They have a team cohesion that Sunderland would love to have. They have a manager who has hit the ground running where getting used to the league is concerned. This game, however, will be a fight. This will not be a game for the purists and can Watford scrap sufficiently to get those points on the board. It will be tough, that is for sure. In it all, there seems to be more likely a draw.
West Ham 2-1 Hull City: Hooray, West Ham not only win a game of football, they win a game of football at their home ground! Are they playing well? Nope. Are they anything like the team of last season? Nope. Are they going to get relegated? Nope. There are worse teams like them in this league this season. Their standards would really have to drop low for them to play in the Championship next season. They are now unbeaten in two games, they have the momentum of a win behind them. Beating Burnley was something and now they face a side who are worse than Burnley. That’s no disrespect to Hull. It’s just saying it as it is. Hull have a poor away record. Hull have a poor record full stop. West Ham won’t get relegated, but Hull should. That poor away record and facing a West Ham who want to make the most of going on the up will not work in their favour. What is worse for the away side is that in West Ham they face a side near them in the table and who they would look to nab a point or more from in order to give them some hope. The likelihood is, however, that the hope will continue to be extinguished after a game like this.
West Brom 1-2 Man Utd: This is among the harder matches to predict in this round of fixtures. What makes it this way is due to the form of both sides. West Brom at the Hawthorns are scoring goals for fun. Now that is still an odd phrase to say in relation to a side managed by Tony Pulis. It’s odd, but it’s true. Their recent three goal spree gives them a look at the table where they are looking up rather than down. Of course, the first team they’re looking up at will be their opponents. Chelsea have been the best team in the league at the moment, but there’s a very good argument to be made that the second best team on form has been United. Where Arsenal, Liverpool, City and Spurs have lost in recent games, United haven’t tasted defeat in the league since they faced Chelsea way back in October. That’s all of 8 league games unbeaten. Sure if they had turned some of those draws into wins they would be higher up the table, but there can be no doubt they are making good progress. West Brom will prove to be their toughest opponents to date. It will be a good test of their credentials if they can emerge from the game with three points. A point will be a hindrance in their bid for the top four finish. They go into this game looking for nothing less than a win – they are Man Utd and they must win. West Brom will have other ideas and they have not been well and truly beaten in a game for a long time. They can use this game to really test their own mettle and see if they can start to take seriously their ability to truly do well this season. If the United team play near their best, they can just about get the three points.
Bournemouth 1-1 Southampton: If Bournemouth carry on the way they are going they will finish the season safely in the league to fight again. They do not win every game and they do not lose every game. They will win and then they will lose. They are getting used to picking up the points when it matters and especially at home they are proving difficult to face. Liverpool, Leicester, Everton and West Brom have all lost at the Vitality Stadium this season in the league, that’s a promising record for the side. Yet this is as good as it gets to a local derby for Bournemouth. It’s hardly the Glasgow derby in terms of intensity and hostility of rivalry, but it is still a derby and anything can happen in a local derby. Southampton, are the epitome of a middling team. Their last result against a middling team was a draw. There is little about them to suggest they are going to anything that drastically different against another middling team. That is not to suggest this will be an easy contest at all for either side. They are both wary of the threats that can be posed by their opponents, they are certainly aware of the expectations their fans have for such an occasion. It is an accumulation of all this that tends towards the thought that the game will end in a draw. The home side will certainly think they can do better than a point, but they will have to be at their best to remain focused and not let the occasion get to them.
Man City 2-2 Arsenal: These are arguably two of the best footballing teams in the Premier League. Footballing in that sense of passing the ball around, keeping possession and having the capacity to pass with intent and use speed to penetrate the other side. Footballing in the sense of being consistent in winning games and looking like genuine title contenders has eluded both sides in recent games. City more than Arsenal. The Citizens certainly recovered well from the shock defeat to Leicester, but they are still seven points behind the league leaders. It’s not an unassailable lead, but it is a significant gap. A gap they need to start into pretty quickly. The Gunners lost for the first time in the league since the opening day of the season, so that is a fairly decent record to be getting on with. They too, however, have seen potentially topping the table to now being six points behind. They certainly did not want to be facing City so soon having lost to Everton, though some positive fans have looked at this as another opportunity to make a statement of intent in the Premier League. Indeed Arsenal can do that. They have beaten City before at the Etihad. There is a vulnerability about City that they could exploit with all the pressure that Guardiola is coming under for the lack of quality defending being displayed by his side. This has the makings to be one of the games of the season even if City are missing Aguerro. It will be interesting to particularly see how Arsenal approach this game, if they go for solidity in midfield and look to run the show from there, it could pay dividends for them. Though both sides know a draw would not be helpful in their pursuit of the title, it might have to be what they settle with.
Tottenham 3-1 Burnley: The fixture list has been kind to Spurs where their recent home games are concerned. Swansea, then Hull and now Burnley. Three teams to varying degrees struggling in the table this season. Three teams that do not have good away records and three teams who even for all that would be considered inferior to this Spurs side. Spurs dispatched Swansea without much hassle. They put down Hull without really breaking that much of a sweat. Burnley will provide something a little different for the home side. They will offer a lot more in the way of tenacity and grit. They will offer a harder working team ethic. They will offer a determination evident from the manager throughout. Pochettino will be very much aware of all of that. He will be aware of it and he will look at the players at his disposal and know that if they play at their potential, if they follow the instructions they have been given then they will pick up another three precious points. Those points will be precious indeed if the teams about them fail to collect three points themselves. The job at hand, however, is for them to deal with Burnley first. They haven’t played at their peak as yet this season, but it will be a good way to start things the right way to put down a marker for their intentions to deal with business properly.
Everton 2-3 Liverpool: The Merseyside derby. Other than the North London derby, it is the enduring derby of the top league. Everton come into this game on the back of a morale-boosting victory against Arsenal. The way the crowd and the team rose to the occasion was something that will give tremendous confidence to the Toffees. They have not been beaten at home. In Lukaku they have one of the strikers who is sharper in front of goals than most. They will not be intimidated going into this game, especially if the team begin to believe in what Koeman is telling them. This game means a lot to the fans, it means a lot for pride and in terms of finishing higher up the table than they have in previous seasons. They can beat this Liverpool side, who for all the goals scored, still have to take their defensive responsibilities to a higher level than they currently inhabit. However, like Lukaku they have a striker in form. Origi has scored five goals in five games and that will stand him in good stead going into this match. As a derby game, this is not going to be one for tippy-tappy football. This should be about guts and passion and the team willing to channel that for the better will be the team that should win the game. Everton face their hardest home match to date in seeing their local rivals. If they can match the degree of intensity they displayed in the second half against Arsenal they should be confident. If Liverpool, however, can take the initiative and keep it, the Reds might be crowing come the final whistle.
A fascinating set of fixtures before a week without football. It will be a set of games to savour and if Chelsea win, it could be one that sees them safe in the knowledge that they will start 2017 in top spot – which will be ominous for their rivals. All of that is yet to be played out, and so …
Let’s see how it goes.
C. L. J. Dryden